Expat Husband And Orphan Spouse – The Untold Story

This post is the second in a series of three articles on orphan spouses. Last time, we walked in the shoes of the accompanying spouse (a woman in this case). Today, we’re putting ourselves then in the footsteps of the leading spouse (a man) before concluding in the third article on THE major challenge of this situation. Ready to know more? Without further ado…

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Let’s face it: you convinced your family to move abroad because of your job, and you’re never home.

Your work is very demanding: you’re probably stuck in the office for long hours, including nights and week-ends, and/or you’re required to travel frequently.                                                        Expat Husband and Orphan Spouse
You hardly see your family, let alone spend valuable time with them.
Without knowing it, you’ve become an orphan spouse.

You’re now like a single man, responsible nonetheless for providing for several additional people. You’re so often absent from home that you feel like an alien in your own family, and you’re in a country where, if you lose your job, you might have to pack up and leave with your wife and children within 28 days.

Expat husband and orphan spouse: if this doesn’t put pressure on you, what will?

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Today, we’re looking at the situation of the expatriate working partner, a perspective that is rarely acknowledged for two reasons:

  • First, in many cases, the financial situation of the working expat is comfortable, so it’s assumed that they don’t have any issues to contend with, or at least that they only have ‘luxury problems’ (where to spend their next holidays, how to optimise their tax return). And if they do struggle, they shouldn’t complain because they’re privileged anyway, right?
  • Second, this position of working partner within the couple is still mostly held by men, who are less likely to express their emotions publicly. Under stress, many take refuge in overwork, alcohol or other addictions such as to electronic devices.

‘An experience makes its appearance only when it’s being said. And unless it’s said, it is, so to speak, non-existent.’
Hannah Arendt – German philosopher

In this situation, we mustn’t forget that both partners are orphans.

They’re both affected in extreme and opposite ways.

When one has too much, the other has too little. Whether it’s about time with the children, money or social contact. Just to name a few.
Free pictures SEPARATOR - 29 images foundWhat does it look like in real life?

Your daughter is playing in the school musical, and she’s looking forward to performing in front of the whole family. She made sure long in advance that you had put the date in your diary, so that you could attend this special evening.

Unfortunately, at the last minute, a client requires you for a strategic meeting. Sound familiar?

You’re torn between a sense of professional duty and your role as a supporting father.

What will get priority?

Preparing for the meeting with your client and alone in your hotel room, you order a cold platter. You put the TV on and open the minibar. You don’t want to think too much.

While the stay-at-home parent is tied to the house, the working partner is tied to a job.

Your life is dedicated to the requirements of your work.
A job abroad doesn’t only offer an income, but also a visa to remain in the country, and eventually other perks (schooling for the children, housing and company cars). As the single bread winner, losing your job would have drastic consequences.

This job has also become a very important part of your identity. What first started as a challenge for a self-driven employee has become an all-consuming activity. You want to live up to the image of a committed and competent professional. You may even be told ‘Only you can do it!’ by a management that wants to massage your ego.

The first casualty in this situation is the family, but this situation takes a toll on all relationships.
Building local friendships and participating in community life are seriously impaired, preventing you from developing other support networks and aspects of your identity.
Free pictures SEPARATOR - 29 images foundYour wife complains about your son.

‘He wants to spend all his spare time on his phone. I put restrictions on him, so he’s constantly nagging me. It’s exhausting! He now wants to be on social media. He’s blaming us for the fact he’s not like his friends because we don’t allow him to have a Snapchat account. Every day is a struggle. I can’t deal with it any more. You need to do something about it.’

You’re reluctant to intervene. Most of the time, you’re absent. How tricky is it to speak about matters you haven’t witnessed in person?

You wonder:
‘What’s the point of me telling him off? I’ll spoil all the joy of seeing him. He’ll dread me coming back. Moreover, he knows that I’m not able to follow through if he breaks the rules. I’m so often away from home. What kind of relationship can we build together?’

A lack of intervention on your part inevitably triggers an argument with your wife, and you fear that scolding your son is damaging your relationship with him.

You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.

While the stay-at-home parent needs to assume the dual role of mum and dad, the orphan spouse away from home struggles to fulfil their role of parent.

When you come home, you want to have a good time, creating pleasant memories of your time with the kids to compensate for all you’ve missed.

Being constantly away, you’ve lost the sense of a shared reality.

Who is their teacher and what does she look like?
What are your kids’ friends’ names?
What do they have for lunch?
When is soccer training?

So many details you don’t know, because this is at odds with your regular day.

You live out of a suitcase, eat in restaurants, sleep in hotels.

Grocery shopping, cooking, washing dishes and vacuum cleaning are tasks you never have to perform.

Organising birthday parties, attending parent-teacher meetings and volunteering to coach the soccer team are activities you can never take part in.

Coming home is like being on another planet or in another country. You can’t relate to this way of life, and you don’t try to engage with it – you’ll be off again shortly. This could be called the Visitor Syndrome! *

You want to relax. You’re under a lot of pressure all day long, with multiple demands from your organisation and numerous time constraints (planes, meetings, opening hours of restaurants, hotels…).

You want to make up for the time you missed with the kids and the family.

Now that you’re here, they have to cancel everything: a friend’s birthday party, the chores given to the kids by your partner, the routines established in your absence. It’s holiday mode.*

As you can imagine, this situation will create conflict and confusion.

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However, there is hope. As engineer Charles Kettering famously mentioned ‘A problem well stated is a problem half solved.’

What’s your take on dealing with this kind of situation?

I’d love to hear from you.


* Both terms (Visitor Syndrome and Holiday Mode) were coined by my dear friend Pamela Leach.

Credit music the Piano Society credit pictures Depositphotos




  1. Nicky Lokier says:

    I have just read both scenarios and, I can see so clearly the tough situations that my son + daughter-in-law are in . It’s so painful for them both + for my husband + who feel helpless to help .
    Thank you for putting forward how each of them feel .

  2. For four years of a six year PhD program, I – the wife – saw my family only a few hours every weekend as I worked full time as a teacher and was in college full time too. Then, we moved to Central Mexico; then to Ecuador, South America. For 25+ years the moves were an attempt to heal my Vietnam Veteran husband. Separations, job stresses, college demands, & expat adjustments are a similar situation to what you describe here. All of this puts a horrid stress on a marriage. However, for us, looking behind, our marriage is a lot stronger.

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